NBC's Heroes is one of the few breakout hits of the new TV season, and last night was its so-called fall finale. We know people are watching — some 14 million a week — but the question remains: Is it actually any good? New York pop-culture experts Adam Sternbergh and Emily Nussbaum tuned in last night to consider the question. Can two TV critics — one's a Heroes vet; one's a Heroes newbie — share an IM window without driving each other crazy?
Sternbergh: As the official Heroes newbie, what did you think?
Nussbaum: So. Turns out it's a little bizarre for me to watch the quasi-finale of a plot-arc show I'd never seen before.
Nussbaum: Which is not to say it was hard to follow, since it seemed to be made up of the scavenged body parts of shows I've already seen.
Nussbaum: What did you think?
Sternbergh: I kept wondering what it was like for someone watching it the first time.
Sternbergh: And hearing them deliver lines like "He's believes that if he saves the cheerleader, he'll save the world"
Sternbergh: without laughing
Nussbaum: Actually, I'd already heard that line, since it was somehow floating around in the pop-culture ether.
Sternbergh: It was the big catchphrase: Save the cheerleader, save the world.
Nussbaum: Also, I cheated by reading Wikipedia during commercials.
Nussbaum: Did you find it a satisfying finale, as a person who was actually familiar with the plot?
Sternbergh: There wasn't much finale there. Basically, just another chapter in the story.
Sternbergh: Speaking of chapters, the chapter titles that start each episode are about the coolest thing in the whole show.
Nussbaum: I've got to be blunt about this show.
Nussbaum: It is the kind of unbelievably literal-minded show I can see myself watching again even though I thought it was kind of terrible.
Nussbaum: I'm just a sucker.
Nussbaum: I like teen shows.
Nussbaum: I like geek superhero shows.
Nussbaum: I like arc shows.
Nussbaum: This was a bad combination of all three of my basic likes.
Sternbergh: At first I thought you wrote "unbelievably liberal-minded show that's kind of terrible" in which case I assumed you meant Studio 60.
Nussbaum: Ha. Well, there's that, yeah. But the main thing about Heroes to me was that every single line was a cliché.
Sternbergh: Heroes is that strange and vaguely frustrating combination of not-very-good yet compulsively watchable
Sternbergh: Like a big bag of bad potato chips.
Nussbaum: There was zero humor. NO character spoke like a real person. In a way, it didn't matter, but it was bizarrely noticeable. It was like Kabuki Buffy.
Sternbergh: There's not a single line of dialogue in which the other character shouldn't reasonably burst out laughing and say, "No, seriously, come on."
Nussbaum: That's perfect: You've pinpointed it.
Sternbergh: And you're right about the humorlessness.
Sternbergh: I find it's like The X-Files meets the X-Men.
Sternbergh: The X-Men-Files.
Sternbergh: All the portentousness of recent superhero movies with some of the catchy yet goofy backstory of The X-Files.
Sternbergh: But none of the delicious psychosexual tension of The X-Files.
Nussbaum: It felt like a script that someone would write as an outline and then rewrite so the lines would be idiosyncratic.
Nussbaum: And then I read on Wikipedia that it does kind of work like that:
Nussbaum: Each writer on the team writes one of the character arcs, then they put them together, and the "script writer" smoothes it out.
Nussbaum: Which is democratic, I guess, but it turns out it makes for awful scripts.
Sternbergh: That makes sense.
Sternbergh: because the scripts are very choppy.
Sternbergh: And the shows move at a glacial pace.
Nussbaum: I liked the cheerleader actress, actually.
Nussbaum: I have this fantasy lately that good characters escape from bad shows.
Nussbaum: Like Addison on Grey's Anatomy.
Sternbergh: She could run off with the cheerleader and Matthew Perry from Studio 60.
Nussbaum: No! With the evil studio exec from S60.
Sternbergh: What I find funny about Heroes is how popular it's become. I don't quite get it.
Nussbaum: Yeah, it's watchable, but I can't imagine becoming enthusiastic about it.
Sternbergh: Though Heroes is certainly a nice change of pace from endless shows about forensics.
Nussbaum: What do you think the appeal is?
Sternbergh: It's like Lost for Dummies.
Sternbergh: And I don't mean that in a pejorative way.
Nussbaum: I knew there was something wrong when I found myself rooting for the bad characters, like the bad cheerleader.
Nussbaum: "You have a point! That DOES sound like loser talk!"
Sternbergh: It offers the appeal of an arc show, with week-to-week cliffhangers. But the plot's not particularly complex, and the puzzles aren't particularly puzzling.
Nussbaum: I liked the good-cheerleader actress, but her role was pretty cringe-worthy: Gain self-esteem and join the freaks! It's better after high school!
Nussbaum: Lady, it's not better after high school.
Sternbergh: I thought that was pretty blatant pandering to the show's fan-boy fan base.
Nussbaum: As a Buffy fanatic, it was maddening to watch, because yeah, as with Lost, it was basically a Buffy paint-by-numbers.
Sternbergh: I wonder if it will sustain its momentum.
Nussbaum: Maybe we just can't see the complexity.
Nussbaum: Could we be the blind ones?
Nussbaum: Blinded by our evil media cynicism?
Sternbergh: That doesn't blind me to the brilliance that is How I Met Your Mother.
Nussbaum: Yes, it is a beautiful thing.
Sternbergh: Most underrated show on TV.
Nussbaum: People! Watch this show! The — what was that ep?
Nussbaum: The Sworley nickname episode?
Sternbergh: But I think you were right about Heroes.
Sternbergh: It's basically a geek-arc show that's just good enough to get you back every week even though it's fundamentally not that good.
Sternbergh: Even the catchphrase:
Sternbergh: Save the cheerleader
Sternbergh: Save the world.
Sternbergh: To which most people would say: What?!?
Sternbergh: I will add that I was amazed how bloody the — SPOILER ALERT — killing of the bad cheerleader was
Nussbaum: Oh, my God, yes!! Very sadistic.
Nussbaum: I was watching with close captions and my favorite bit was...
Nussbaum: when Claire reorganizes her mangled body, the caption read...
Nussbaum: "squishing and crackling."
Sternbergh: It was like a bad after-school special that suddenly turned into Carrie.
Sternbergh: "Squishing and Crackling."
Sternbergh: Though come on — you have to admit it was cool.
Sternbergh: And when Sylar cut her head open — SPOILER ALERT — like a can opener.
Nussbaum: That was cool, yes, except that he'd killed the one character who could take the piss out of all these smug, earnest Neo-like fated people!
Sternbergh: All right, it's back to Studio 60 for me.
Nussbaum: Enjoy the sanctimonious escapades!
Sternbergh: The Culture Wars aren't going to fight themselves!